Social media and the news: the power of the internet

Posted by suzichristie on April 28, 2017

In this month’s blog, I was going to tell you about how sometimes in PR you have to have perseverance to get your client the attention they deserve. I was going to talk about Glenn Moore, at G.M. Moore & Associates, and how it took us almost a year to get one of his designs into the very popular Grand Designs Magazine but that the end result was worth it.

And then Cadbury’s decided to do some promotional work with the National Trust under the name Cadbury Egg Hunts.

You probably saw the media furore as, first the Church of England’s PR department, then the national newspapers, and finally the Prime Minister decided to comment on the fact that an advertisement for the Cadbury Egg Hunt omitted the word Easter in the title sentence. As many have pointed out, the word Easter was prominently displayed on other parts of the advertising and it would have looked rather tautologous to have had Easter twice in the sentence but simple logic didn’t really matter because, once the C of E had objected, it became a story and social media went into meltdown. The speed of social media and the vehemence with which that message is reported meant that the story quickly travelled from the inside pages to the front-page. Cadbury’s had to act, so they apologised and the story moved on.

The truth is, they probably didn’t take much hurt from this story for several reasons. Firstly, it really wasn’t that important and in fact the publicity probably made more people aware of these National Trust events. In turn, more people will have gone to them and so Cadbury’s, the National Trust and the Church, who got to publicise Easter, have probably all done well out of it.

Secondly, and perhaps more distractingly, Pepsi almost immediately created their own PR disaster with an advertisement showing US reality star and model, Kylie Jenner, leaving a fashion shoot in an impetuous manner to go and take part in a non-specific protest march after catching the eye of a cello-wielding demonstrator. When things look tense for the protestors and the handsome model-like policemen look like they are about to start a batten charge, Kylie grabs a can of cold Pepsi, hands it to an attractive policeman, and all is right with the world.

Unsurprisingly, many people on Twitter took umbrage at this and soon a rather vacuous advert became a cause-celebre with people jumping on the band-wagon to declaim Pepsi. As newspapers are keen to say, social media went into uproar, and so Pepsi pulled the advert and apologised. Once the furore had begun, the only option left open to Pepsi was to minimise the problem by removing the advert.

Just as Cadbury’s probably benefitted from Pepsi, so Pepsi probably benefited from United Airlines. I’m sure you know the story, it is practically impossible to have avoided it. United Airlines very own PR disaster involved a fully booked plane and seated passengers waiting to embark. Then the airline decided it wanted to put some of their own staff on the flight and so they asked customers to voluntarily give up their seats. When they didn’t get any volunteers, they decided to remove a Vietnamese-born doctor and in the ensuing fracas he lost two teeth and his face was cut. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, just didn’t want to vacate a seat for which he had paid. Of course, everyone on the plane videoed the incident and instantly uploaded it – the result is United Airlines became public enemy number one in minutes.

The incident is, of course, abhorrent and should not have happened but what makes it worse is the way it is then dealt with. Firstly, the CEO issues a weak apology before saying the passenger was belligerent, then stories appeared in the press questioning the doctor’s past, and finally the CEO issued another fairly weak apology.

Unlike Cadbury’s and Pepsi, who issued immediate forceful apologies, United Airline’s behaviour allowed the story to grow. It looked more like the CEO was intent on trying to protect himself, rather than show any genuine sorrow for the fate of the doctor. This kept the story in the papers and allowed competitors, such as Southwest, to produce adverts saying: “We beat the competition. Not you.” An entire meme of similar jokes started on Facebook, entitled, “United Airlines Memes”. The result was, their shares tumbled and the story just kept going, with new stories adding to the first incident.

In all these cases, it is very easy break down the incident into a before and after. In all the cases, you can say that the initial problem should have never happened – Cadbury’s should have anticipated the Church of England’s PR department jumping onto this story; Pepsi should have understood how their video would be received; and, of course, United Airlines should have more respect for their paying passengers. What is clear, however, is what they did after the event also had a major effect upon the outcome. In the case of Cadbury’s and Pepsi, the immediacy of their apology meant it was over before it started and they may have in fact gained more publicity than they would have done without the outcry.

Now, obviously, the United Airlines story is much worse but what exacerbated the problem was the poor way with which it was dealt. President Truman, in the 1950s, said, “The Buck Stops Here!” When a negative incident occurs, it is always the responsibility of the person at the top to make sure it is dealt with correctly and sometimes that even means ‘falling on your sword’. In essence, if something bad occurs, the management for that company needs to find a way to remove the oxygen that keeps the story alight.

These days, this is made worse by the immediacy of social media. In the first two incidents, what may have been a small thing seen by a few people, became a big thing because social media picked up on it and instantaneously sent it around the world. It may have only been a small number of people who were actually angry about the advertising but it becomes a story because it got disseminated so quickly. In the case of United Airlines, the fact that everyone on the flight videoed it on their phones meant they had graphic images to go with the story – what started as a social media story soon became a traditional media story with video footage.

Companies should never underestimate the power of social media and the way it spreads messages quickly and efficiently. This doesn’t always have to be negative, however, as shown by the makers of ‘Star Wars – The Last Jedi’. The film will not be in cinemas until December 2017 but still they recently released a trailer. It tells you very little about the film but, because it is Star Wars, social media turned it into a story. The filmmakers know that their short trailer will get their fan’s excited and they will share it on Facebook and Twitter and, just like the negative stories, it becomes a news story. It will then reach people who aren’t massive fans and so they slowly start to build excitement for a film that will be released in eight months’ time.

It just goes to show, the combination of social media, journalism, and publicity should not be underestimated as it can have a very positive or a very damaging effect upon your company.